“There was fierce bidding for this unique coin,” said a spokesman for Dix Noonan Webb. “The price paid shows that the worldwide market for important pieces like this Æthelberht II coin is extremely strong.” Bidders in the room, on the internet and those who had lodged advance commission bids pushed the price up rapidly from its £17,000 starting point. The final hammer price was £65,000 and by the time buyers’ commission was added the winning bidder paid £78,000.
Darrin Simpson, the 48 year-old metal detectorist from Eastbourne, Sussex who found the coin, said:” It’s fantastic, an amazing result. I am really quite shocked.” He will give half the money to the Sussex farmer who owns the field where the coin was found and another quarter to the three friends who were detecting with him when he discovered it in early March this year.
Mr Simpson, a pest control specialist who has been a metal detectorist for 12 years, was hurrying to shelter from a hailstorm at the undisclosed site when he picked up a signal. Despite the appalling weather he stopped, dug down 6-8 inches and found the penny which he immediately realised dated from Saxon times.
But it was not until Mr Simpson contacted the Early Medieval Corpus of Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge that he realised the full importance of his discovery. The coin is only the fourth ever found from the reign of Æthelberht II, a shadowy figure who ruled East Anglia in the late 8th-century. The other three are all in museums and have a different design. The coin found by Mr Simpson is the first to have Æthelberht’s name and the title REX on the same side.
Little is known about Æthelberht II’s reign but stories about his piety and his gruesome end ordered by Offa, king of neighbouring Mercia, have survived down the centuries. His reign over the kingdom of East Anglia is thought to have begun in 779. Fifteen years later in 794 he reluctantly agreed to marry Eadburh, Offa’s daughter, and set off to visit her at the Mercian king’s villa at Sutton Walls in Herefordshire.
Offa’s queen Cynethryth persuaded her husband to have their guest killed and Æthelberht was seized, bound and beheaded. According to medieval legend, Æthelberht’s severed head later fell off a cart and, after being found in a ditch, restored a blind man’s sight. The dead king was declared a saint and became the focus of a religious cult in East Anglia. Many parish churches in Norfolk and Suffolk are still dedicated to him.
The coin auctioned at Dix Noonan Webb may have been one of the reasons for Æthelberht’s terrible end. The East Anglian king is believed to have struck the other three known coins from his reign with the approval of his much more powerful neighbour Offa. However the newly-discovered penny looks like an act of defiance by the increasingly ambitious Æthelberht.
The fact that Æthelberht’s name and the title REX (King) appear on the same side of the coin may have demonstrated a degree of independence that was simply too much for Offa and Cynethryth to bear and they decided to kill him. How this penny came to be in a Sussex field will never be known but its discovery by Mr Simpson provides us with a possible motive for a 1,200 year-old Anglo-Saxon royal murder.
Dix Noonan Webb Ltd is one of the world’s leading specialist auctioneers and valuers of coins, tokens, medals, militaria and paper money of all types. Established in 1990, the company boasts over 250 years' combined experience in this field and stages regular auctions throughout the year.
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